In order to provide the best possible cancer care to all Arkansans and continue "cutting-edge" research, it's incumbent upon the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to pursue National Cancer Institute designation, said Michael Birrer, UAMS vice chancellor and director of the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.
He told the Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas system on Tuesday that "we've made a lot of progress."
"We're very geared up for this, and I think we have the elements to be successful," Birrer told Trustees during a meeting at UAMS. Though it'll require another two to five years from the point where UAMS is at currently to reach the actual application point, "we're aiming for two years or less if we can," he said.
NCI designation is the country's most distinguished status for cancer centers. There are 71 NCI-designated cancer centers in the country, but none in Arkansas, according to UAMS. More than two-thirds of funds awarded by NCI for research and clinical trials go to NCI-designated centers, and many NCI community outreach and program grants are only offered to NCI-designated cancer centers.
Achieving NCI designation would be a "win-win" for the state and UAMS, but also for the NCI, because they'd be "supporting good work in the state," said UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson. "We've made great strides" toward that designation, and "we wouldn't be on this journey without the state support."
NCI designation requires formalized, collaborative cancer research programs, centralized shared resources that facilitate cancer research, a robust cancer clinical trials program, an exceptional community outreach and engagement program that addresses and researches cancer-related needs, efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (or DEI), a coordinated effort to train cancer researchers beginning in middle school, and a centralized cancer center administration to oversee infrastructure and alignment with the NCI designation, Birrer said.
UAMS has already increased cancer-relevant funding with incoming recruits, started developing new radiation biology shared resources, formed a DEI council and created DEI education models, launched travel grants and education modules, and hosted the first high school research symposium.
In the past few years, UAMS has hired two-dozen research faculty, who represent "a massive expansion" in that area, and they brought with them $13 million in grants they'd already procured, said Birrer, who was recently appointed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders to the state medical board. These new faculty cover 11 departments and four colleges.
"Research is integral to what we do -- there's so much momentum right now -- and the future is bright," Patterson said. "Collectively, our research programs bring in $160 million annually," and UAMS research programs have enjoyed 85% growth in federal support over the past five years, which is "extraordinary," he said.
UAMS projects that NCI Designation would have an economic impact of $72 million to the state annually.
In 2022-23, UAMS has hired 10 "needed" clinicians, as well, and Birrer is intent on supplying cancer care to all areas of the state, including rural and impoverished regions where that is "challenging," he said. That's why an agreement with Baptist Health -- which the UA System trustees approved in November 2022 -- is so crucial.
"We will supply all cancer care for Baptist Health, [a] win-win, [because] it gives us a footprint throughout the entire state without having to build it ourselves," and such a statewide cancer care network is paramount to achieving NCI designation, he said. As part of this agreement, a clinic in North Little Rock is "growing and going well," and a second clinic in Little Rock will open in the next few months.
UAMS currently "has boots on the ground in 73" of the state's 75 counties as part of its "statewide mission," including eight regional campuses, with a ninth poised to open in El Dorado, said Patterson. UAMS programs in Northwest Arkansas are "growing almost exponentially," including an accelerated BSN program -- which aims to ameliorate the nursing shortage in the state -- set to graduate its first cohort in August.
Col. Nate Todd is concerned about the deleterious impact of undiagnosed and untreated conditions -- particularly cancer -- on families and communities in the state's underserved regions, said the trustee. Consequently, "I thank [Birrer and UAMS] for looking throughout the state" to treat cancer and serve patients.
The Proton Center of Arkansas, set to open this fall, will be the first in the state -- one of only 41 nationwide -- to offer a highly targeted radiation therapy that uses protons instead of X-rays to attack cancerous tumors, Birrer said. Previously, individuals had to leave the state for this innovative treatment, but that will no longer be the case when the Proton Center of Arkansas -- a partnership between the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Arkansas Children's Hospital, Baptist Health, and Proton International -- opens at the Radiation Oncology Center on the UAMS campus in Little Rock.
While both forms of radiation kill cancer cells, proton radiation is more effective in treating certain cancers -- like those in close vicinity of critical organs for which conventional radiation can be too toxic -- and proton beams can be precisely conformed to target and release most of their energy directly into a tumor with minimal damage to surrounding healthy tissue, according to UAMS. For patients, that means fewer -- and less severe -- side effects, faster recovery time, and an overall better quality of life.
In November, the Children's Tumor Foundation (CTF) and UAMS opened the first CTF-sponsored, fully multidisciplinary clinic dedicated to the care of adults with neurofibromatosis at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, and it's "off to a roaring start," Birrer said. It's "a great resource for the community."
Neurofibromatosis is a group of rare genetic disorders that cause tumors to grow on nerves throughout the body and afflicts 2.5 million people worldwide, according to UAMS. Treatments help manage the disease, for which there is no cure.
This is the nation's first neurofibromatosis clinic for adults and "another way UAMS is becoming a national destination for healthcare," Patterson said Wednesday. This "very debilitating" condition is often diagnosed in children, who receive care at hospitals dedicated to youths, but they can't be treated at those pediatric centers once they turn 18; now, however, they can turn to the neurofibromatosis clinic for adults.
UAMS is also looking to address other healthcare challenges in the state.
For example, Patterson and other UAMS leaders are working with state and federal legislators on increasing residency slots by 200 annually in the state, and he's "optimistic" that can be accomplished in the future, perhaps as soon as this legislative session, he said. Currently, there are not enough slots in the state for all those who need residencies, so some graduates must go out of state.